Around three years ago, it was the beginning of the COVID epidemic, and – for many – the beginning of the first lockdown.
It was on a walk with my wife in Denver during that strange time when I said to her that perhaps, with the world apparently on pause, this might be a window for me to write the book I had been thinking of for the past couple of years.
Little did I know that it would be three long years before the book would see the light of day!
The concept for the book wasn’t something I had worked on, or schemed. My experiences over the past few years to that point – and since – were something I simply felt compelled to share.
It had been a surprise to me to get involved in diversity and ‘People’ (in the corporate sense) in the first half of the 2010s, given my background had been more commercial.
But working with my boss at the time – a tech CEO – got me heavily focused on some of the big people-related priorities facing the company (and others) at the time: how do we hire fast enough? How do we find the best people? How do we bring true ‘diversity of thought’ into our business, to drive creativity and innovation?
My consequent immersion in the world of strategic diversity programs, specifically tech apprenticeships, led to an ever-greater awareness of the power of diversity to drive business outcomes… and of the potential to create social impact through business impact.
It was around this time that I first began to explore the very nascent “neurodiversity at work” space. Autistic family members told me of some interesting changes and first corporate programs in the area: and the topic resonated with me, particularly, having suffered a traumatic brain injury in my mid 20s. Connecting with nonprofits and the first corporate neurodiversity program builders, I could immediately see the importance of far greater awareness and inclusion of neurodivergent talent… and my company Uptimize was born, as a vehicle to change cultures and perceptions and enable organizations to truly embrace talent that thinks differently.
This journey was, immediately, an exciting one.
The first program builders, at companies like Microsoft and JPMorgan Chase, knew they were pioneering something different, yet something so important – and so belated. The first “autism at work” conferences buzzed with enthusiasm, bringing together practitioners from all around the world.
Some grumbled that things weren’t moving fast enough – me included, as I and others quickly felt that true “neurodiversity programs” would need to be holistic inclusion programs, not just local hiring initiatives. Others bemoaned the lack of neurodivergent representation, though that began to change over time. Nevertheless, the “neurodiversity at work” movement had been born, and it spawned conversations – in the media, and inside organizations – on a scale never seen before.
Soon, organizations were seeing the rise and rise of internal self-advocacy groups – neurodiversity “ERGs”, or similar, who said – “what about us? We are already here… and we’d like to help you make the organization more neuroinclusive”. Their work began to compel organizations to take the holistic approach to neuroinclusion that was always the ultimate logical path: and it gave us, at Uptimize, a chance to partner with employers at unprecedented scale.
Whether supporting a hiring program, or an enterprise wide initiative, we quickly saw extraordinary reactions. Often learners would have a strongly emotional response to – finally – seeing their organization embrace the topic of neurodiversity for the first time. “Having this forum and this level of attention takes my breath away” said one employee, while others commented “Every day I’m at work I’m bringing a lot of effort… it’s nice that the training will help shoulder this burden on the management side”, and “I’m dyslexic and sometimes it’s difficult to share that with employers… it’s great we are all doing this training!”.
So called “neurotypical” employees responded with similar enthusiasm – recognizing, sometimes for the first time, that they work in neurodiverse organizations, that they themselves have a unique brain that is different from those of their colleagues, and that simple steps can help to support coworkers and improve collaboration and productivity.
“I was surprised by my own lack of knowledge here – and how much I learned!”, said a colleague at a global mining company, while managers too acknowledged the importance and immediate relevance of the topic: I was a little skeptical about this (needing training on this topic) but it was a real eye opener for me. It was impactful, and I walked away thinking this has made a real difference”.
All this: the excitement, the new conversations, the impact of change… this was what I felt compelled to share beyond my immediate network and that of Uptimize. While some organizations, like Salesforce, steamed ahead with impressive inclusion efforts – leading my friend Austin Aja, a Salesforce ERG lead, to tell me that he could never imagine working for a company that wasn’t making such efforts – it was clear that wider societal (and employer) ignorance of neurodiversity remained.
The goal of A Hidden Force, then, was and is to take the mission of neuroinclusion to a broader audience. The book, as originally conceived on that socially-distanced walk back in 2020, seeks to help create a greater understanding of what neurodiversity really means, rooted in the reality that humans – and therefore any organization, or candidate pool – are neurodiverse by definition.
It looks to explore how we are only just talking about this now, too – how terms you have heard of like “autistic” or “ADHD” came to be, and how their medicalization has led to issues for the neurodivergent community and spurned advocacy challenging this.
It charts the rise of what I call “neurodiversity as a talent strategy” – organizations beginning to realize embracing neurodiversity isn’t just overdue inclusion, it’s a path to better business outcomes – and highlights what anybody can do, right now, to bring greater neuroinclusion both to their own work and to that of their teams.
I spoke to a multi-published author the other day for some advice. She told me the best books are the ones you don’t spend a bunch of time conceiving… they are the books that just tumble out of you, that you feel compelled to write. “A Hidden Force” was definitely such a book – and I’m glad I took the plunge on the journey to creating it during that dark time early in 2020. I’m so excited to share it with the world on April 11.
Ed Thompson is the CEO and founder of Uptimize – a unique corporate training platform that helps organizations attract, hire and retain talent that thinks differently. Uptimize works globally with organizations like Salesforce, JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte and IBM, building robust and impactful neurodiversity at work programs. Ed has also become a frequent speaker on the topic of neurodiversity in the workplace. His book, A Hidden Force, is available now.